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Q&A: Jenny Odell on how Bay Area landscapes inspired her new book ‘Saving Time’

Q&A: Jenny Odell on how Bay Area landscapes inspired her new book ‘Saving Time’

Oakland author, artist and former Stanford instructor Jenny Odell is perhaps best known for her 2019 best seller, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” which was named one of the best books of the year by Time, The New Yorker, NPR and more.

Her newest, “Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock” (Random House, $29), delivers its messages as a series of Bay Area road trip vignettes peppered with historical, contemporary and pop culture references. Drawing on a wide array of sources, from Aristotle to Netflix’s “I Think You Should Leave,” she traces how we came to think of time as money and how to find new ways of experiencing time — and what’s at stake if we don’t.

Q: You talk about the Bay Area in such an intimate way, describing how different landscapes tell different stories about time — from geologic time to the I-880 commute. How did those landscapes shape you?

A: It goes really far back for me. I’m from the border between Cupertino and San Jose, and I was always struck by the contrast in how time and life felt in the suburbs or at school – even before iPhones, we were all overworked and overscheduled – and the mountains, like at Sanborn Park. Time felt very different there.

Q: The time-is-money mindset influences so much of how we think about labor and technology. How do you see that playing out in, say, Silicon Valley?

A: A lot of the interfaces that I talk about are designed in Silicon Valley. If you’ve ever been in the back of a Lyft or an Uber, you get a sense of the schedule the driver is on and the way their time is manipulated.

Culturally, Silicon Valley is also a center, where the productivity bros that I talk about are disseminating videos and content. Obviously, people want to improve themselves, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. But there is the pathological version where it’s the quantified self gone too far, where every minute needs to be as productive as it could possibly be, to the point that you lose sight of what it is that brings meaning to your life.

Q: In an ideal world, how would that mindset look different?

A: The most basic thing is moving beyond this notion that everyone has 24 hours in a day. Everyone’s experience of time is very much determined by how much power they have.

An example is a woman who leads a Facebook group for working moms. She’s been thinking about getting six other moms together, and each one makes dinner for everyone else one night of the week. I would love to see more of an acknowledgement of how tied together we all are in our experience of time, and how we might do things together that would free up more time for everyone.

Q: In the book, you discuss different ways marginalized communities experience time. What are some takeaways?

A: Someone’s feeling of time pressure or time scarcity might not be as simple as not having enough hours in a day. It could be something like being on call, on someone else’s clock or doing all the housework and taking care of the children. The further I got into researching the book, the more time started to seem like a reflection of power.

Q: How does that contrast with the idea of chosen busy-ness and productivity culture?

A: That distinction can be really difficult to make. There’s a huge difference between someone on someone else’s clock versus someone who is making themselves busy. There’s also a gray area in the middle. For example, think about an adjunct arts professor who  has to not only teach, but make artwork, exhibit and appear busy so they’re employable. I still think a lot about my Stanford students. You could tell them, “You should slow down,” but they still felt so much pressure. The fear is real that you’re going to fall behind.

Q: Did you think about climate change as you were writing “Saving Time”?

A: Two big things motivated the book: One was the observation of time pressure and time scarcity, and the other was the feeling of declinism — needing to find some kind of alternative way of thinking about time.

I’ve found a lot of inspiration in just observing the agency of the nonhuman world. It starts to seem less like we are this horrible parasitic species living on this earth and essentially alone, and more like both we and the world that we inhabit are participating in something.

Q: You talk a lot about the power of close observation. How do you hope people use that?

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A: Taking a step back, I hope that people become more attentive to the signatures of time around them. I want the person who feels time pressure and has been seeing rhetoric like “You just need to work harder” to experience reprieve and no longer blame themselves.

I’ve been inspired by the writer strike. People were having isolated individual experiences of pressure, where they thought the problem was themselves. Then they all started talking to each other and were like, “Oh, wait — it’s much bigger than any one of us, and the only way we’re going to move the needle on this is if everybody does this thing together.”

Meet the author: Odell is part of Oaklandside’s Culture Makers event ($15-$18, Eventbrite) at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater at 474 24th St. Hear Odell and geologist Andrew Alden in a talk about rocks, clocks and more moderated by historian Dorothy Lazard, at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Oakland Main Library at 125 14th St.; https://oaklandlibrary.bibliocommons.com/.